The race for Columbus Council Post 1 pits incumbent Pops Barnes, who is seeking his third term, against challenger Zeph Baker, who ran for mayor in 2010. Barnes has been a loyal advocate for his district and the city. Both candidates have made crime in the district a campaign issue, and both say jobs and economic development are critical to the future.
Baker articulates a vision for the district and the city that is both broader and more specific. He notes that despite an overall reduction in crime in Columbus, one-third of all burglaries and nearly a third of aggravated assaults occur in District 1. He advocates tax incentives for property owners that he says will keep more money in the district and the city, which he says should capitalize better on Columbus Technical College as a regional business generator. He suggests partnerships with private organizations to help ex-offenders avoid recidivism, and therefore reduce crime. He says he will work with fellow councilors for the benefit of the entire city: "The value of each district," he said, "enhances the whole."
With respect for two terms of Pop Barnes' dedicated service, Zeph Baker brings fresh ideas to the table, and thus earns our endorsement.
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Evelyn "Mimi" Woodson has enjoyed a long, if unspectacular, tenure representing Council Post 7. Her commitment to public service is sincere, but frequently unfocused. She now favors once-weekly trash pickup, a position which carries some political risk but also attests to practicality and conviction over calculation.
Her opponent is Xavier McCaskey, an interesting man with a colorful history, but one whose credentials for a public office of this importance are dubious at best. It would have served the interests of District 7 - and probably of Councilor Woodson herself - to have had a genuine contest of ideas in this election. In the absence of more fresh and substantive proposals from her opponent, we endorse Mimi Woodson for reelection to Council Post 7.
Council Post 9 incumbent Judy Thomas faces a challenge from Felicia Hamilton, a local business owner and motivational speaker. Thomas, the council's budget hawk, is cautious - usually to the public good, occasionally to a fault - about spending, and she insists on knowing the details and reading the fine print. She (among others) supports independent professional budget assistance in dealing with seemingly intractable problems like health care costs and the annual deficits in the Sheriff's Department. She says Columbus needs to reduce the number of city employees, but through attrition and retirements rather than layoffs.
Felicia Hamilton calls - rightly - for respectful debate rather than "bickering" among councilors; and she pledges to be accessible to the whole community, not just those in her district. But a lack of specifics in her platform and in her answers to questions about her civic vision raises doubts about her readiness to assume this post. The contrast with Thomas' attention to detail is striking. Judy Thomas is the clear choice for reelection to Council Post 9.
Muscogee County School Board
There are three board seats contested in the May 20 election, and each is an interesting - and tough to call -- contest.
In District 2, senior board member John Wells has three challengers: Pratt & Whitney training coordinator Victor Morales, Kar-Toons Car Stereo owner John "Bart" Steed and IRS agent John F. Thomas. While all four bring sound ideas to the debate, it is the opinion of this board that the two most viable candidates for this seat are Wells, the 28-year veteran, and Thomas.
Wells says his passion for education is why he's seeking yet another term, and nobody can doubt his sincerity. (On occasion, the intensity of that passion has been a big part of the friction that has divided the school board.) Wells is knowledgeable about the nuts and bolts of education: He knows that poverty is education's biggest challenge, and that early childhood learning is invaluable.
Thomas does not have, nor does he claim, Wells' familiarity with education detail, and says he intends to listen to and learn from those who do. His strength is money management - which he credibly argues is one of the school board's shortcomings. His first priority would be a top-to-bottom school system audit, to better dictate allocation of resources and to cut non-personnel costs.
We have repeatedly endorsed John Wells for this post, and stand by every one of those endorsements. With sincere respect for his long and diligent service, we think it's time for some new ideas. We endorse John Thomas for School Board District 2.
In District 8, incumbent Beth Harris faces a challenge from none other than attorney and veteran political operative Frank Myers, the school board's most outspoken critic, who urged citizens to "Boot the Board" and now would join the board he wanted to boot.
Harris is a strong advocate of parental involvement in education, and wants better disciplinary control, including measures like police dog patrols. One of her best ideas is that we could better understand graduation rate problems by disaggregating the data, and we agree.
Myers, like John Wells, is a passionate man who sometimes needs to rein it in. But he also has a focused vision. Like Thomas, he wants a clearer picture of district finances. Teachers and students paying for supplies, and kids having to pay more than some can afford just to play sports are, to Myers, evidence of slack financial oversight. Not enough money, he believes, is getting to the classroom.
If Frank Myers wants to help fix a dysfunctional board, he must be a team player, not a bomb thrower. Otherwise, he will not be part of a solution but just another dimension of the problem. With that caveat, we favor a vote for Frank Myers for District 8.
The open At Large seat poses maybe the toughest call on the ballot: Former board member and veteran educator Owen Ditchfield; businesswoman Kia Chambers, also a former educator; and Nate Sanderson, former president of the NAACP Columbus branch are vying for the post. All three candidates have impressive credentials. But with due respect to Sanderson, it is Chambers' and Ditchfield's experience as educators that sets them apart.
Ditchfield's resume as a teacher and school board member is extensive and impressive. He is inspired by the ideas and enthusiasm of the new superintendent, and thinks he can help repair the battered image of the school board. Indeed, Ditchfield has repeatedly shown his ability to disagree without being disagreeable, and would bring both local knowledge and his diplomatic skill.
Chambers has an up-close understanding of the challenges of a large and diverse school system, especially the challenge of teaching poor children and children with various learning disabilities, having taught "all kinds of kids with all kinds of problems." She advocates the board inviting public officials and business owners to share their budgetary insights.
This race looks like a no-lose proposition for voters, but Chambers' dual skill sets as both an educator and a business owner give her the edge.
Mayor of Columbus
There is no low-profile candidate in the race to be the next chief executive of Columbus. Both challenger Colin Martin and incumbent Teresa Tomlinson are familiar public figures with records of public service. Tomlinson, formerly a Columbus attorney, was a founder and former chief executive of Midtown Inc.; Martin, among other past civic roles, is a former vice president of the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce.
This is a contest between two smart, committed, energetic people. Their main disagreements are on crime - Tomlinson points to a drop in the overall crime rate, Martin to a rise in the most serious categories of crime - and financial/economic issues. Martin says Columbus homeowners need property tax relief and supports the assessment freeze; Tomlinson would phase out the freeze with the provision that everyone under its umbrella keeps it.
Both candidates have insightful ideas concerning economic incentives. Tomlinson points to a city "matrix" to measure whether a public investment in economic development will pay off, and says quality-of-life issues are crucial to any return on such an investment. Martin alludes -- quite rightly -- to an unfortunate trend, especially in the South, to give away the store (he calls it a "race to the bottom") in the name of economic growth, and says the city should have "claw-back" provisions when a company doesn't deliver.
For us the issue comes down to whether Columbus is moving in the right direction. We believe the overwhelming evidence is that it is, and that Tomlinson's leadership, especially in the realm of getting a handle on city finances, is a big part of the reason why. Colin Martin, still a relatively young man at 47, would serve well in elective office. But this office, in this election, is already occupied by a mayor we see no need to replace. We endorse Teresa Tomlinson for reelection as mayor of Columbus.
These endorsements are just one small part of the civic debate. There are three more weeks until Election Day, and we hope that debate - civil, but spirited - continues all the way to May 20. The only endorsements that ultimately matter are those of voters.